Florida Drone Laws: Mastering the Airspace

Florida Drone Laws

Short Summary:

Florida’s drone laws include the Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act and the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Act, governing usage and prohibiting unauthorized surveillance, with specific rules for recreational, government, and commercial use. Violations can lead to penalties.

Introduction & Background

As a seasoned expert in the evolving domain of drone legislation in Florida, I bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to the table. My journey in this field began with a deep interest in aviation and technology, which led me to closely follow the advancements in unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) or drones. Over the years, I have meticulously studied and interpreted Florida’s key statutes such as the Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act and the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Act. These laws, governing the use of drones for various purposes ranging from recreational to commercial, have significant implications for privacy, security, and civil liberties – areas where my expertise particularly shines.

My authority on this subject is backed by a robust legal background and practical experience in the field. Having navigated the complex interplay between state and federal regulations, including the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 and the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018, I possess a nuanced understanding of how these laws impact drone operations. My involvement in key cases and legislative developments, coupled with an in-depth study of the implications of drone technology in areas like surveillance, property rights, and law enforcement, has positioned me as a go-to resource for individuals and entities grappling with the legalities of drone usage in Florida. Whether it’s advising on compliance, representing in litigation, or providing strategic consultation, my goal is to demystify drone law and guide stakeholders through the legal landscape with clarity and foresight.

Examining Drone Laws in Florida

Florida law regulates the use of drones in a number of ways. The Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act prohibits the use of drones to gather evidence or conduct surveillance, with certain exceptions. The Unmanned Aircraft Systems Act sets out the state’s authority to regulate drones and restricts local governments from enacting certain ordinances related to drones. Case law has also addressed the use of drones in the context of stalking and harassment.

A drone, also known as an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), is a type of aircraft that operates without a human. The Unmanned Aircraft Systems Act in Florida uses both “UAS” and “drone” to refer to this type of aircraft (§ 330.41(2)(b), Fla. Stat.). While many people may view drones as a recreational device, they have a wide range of uses, including for commercial purposes such as data collection, surveillance, surveying, real estate, construction, design, utilities, agriculture, and film.

The Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act (Fla. Stat. § 934.50) is one of the key statutes regulating drone use in Florida. It prohibits law enforcement agencies from using drones to gather evidence or conduct surveillance, except in certain circumstances, such as when a warrant is obtained or when swift action is needed to prevent imminent danger. The statute also prohibits individuals from using drones to record images of private property or individuals without written consent, if the intent is to conduct surveillance.

Remedies for violations include compensatory damages and injunctive relief. The Unmanned Aircraft Systems Act (Fla. Stat. § 330.41) is another key statute regulating drone use in Florida. It vests the authority to regulate drones in the state, except as provided in federal regulations, and restricts local governments from enacting ordinances related to drone use. The statute also prohibits individuals from operating drones near critical infrastructure facilities, such as power stations and chemical plants. Case law has also addressed the use of drones in Florida. In Rosaly v. Konecny, the court discussed the use of drones in the context of stalking and harassment, and referenced the Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act and the anti-stalking statute. The court affirmed an injunction for protection against stalking, finding that the use of a drone could cause substantial emotional distress.

In Florida, the use of drones is subject to a legal framework that includes both federal and state regulations. Failure to comply with drone laws can result in civil and criminal prosecutions, as well as heavy fines at the federal, state, and local levels.

Federal Drone Framework

The federal government maintains the safety of the national airspace system (NAS) through aircraft regulation, which is governed by several federal laws and regulations. These include the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (PL 112-95 § 331(8)) (2012 FAA Act), the Small Unmanned Aircraft System Rules (14 C.F.R. §§ 107.1 to 107.205) (Part 107), the FAA Extension, Safety, and Act of 2016 (PL 114-190) (49 U.S.C. § 46320) (2016 FAA Act), and the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 (PL 115-254) (2018 FAA Act). The FAA, acting on behalf of the US government, has the exclusive authority to prescribe air traffic regulations for the flight of aircraft (49 U.S.C. § 40103(b)).

The FAA regulates all devices that meet the definition of an aircraft, which generally refers to any device designed or used for flying or navigating in the air (49 U.S.C. § 40102(a)(6)). This means that the FAA regulates all drones, regardless of their intended use.

While state and local laws regarding air safety are generally preempted by federal law, the FAA has accommodated state regulation and has stated that certain drone issues, such as privacy, trespass, and law enforcement, are best addressed by states and municipalities. However, preemption issues involving drones require a case-by-case analysis rather than a rule of general applicability (81 Fed. Reg. 42064-01, 42119). As a result, both states and municipalities may regulate certain aspects of drone operations based on their police powers.

Drone use and regulation generally falls into three categories: recreational, government, and commercial. However, concerns regarding privacy and product safety are important considerations for all three types of use.

Recreational Use

Recreational use of drones typically refers to operators who fly drones for personal enjoyment or for taking pictures for personal use. However, drones used by higher education institutes for educational or research purposes are also considered recreational drones (PL 115-254 § 350).

One of the main considerations for recreational drone use is avoiding restricted airspace, such as stadiums and sporting events, airports, critical infrastructure like railroad facilities, and security-sensitive airspace, which includes military facilities, national landmarks, nuclear facilities, prisons, and US Coast Guard Bases. The FAA recommends flying at least 2,000 feet above ground level over national marine sanctuaries, wildlife refuges, and parks, including the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. This effectively prohibits drone flight in these areas as it exceeds the authorized altitude for drone flight.

Government Use

Government use of drones encompasses a broad range of activities, such as emergency response, law enforcement, and land surveying. In Florida, counties have used drones for property appraisal and mosquito control. However, government drone use, both at the state and federal level, has sparked debates about potential privacy violations by drone operators. The 2018 FAA Act authorizes and regulates government drone use, including for tribal governments (PL 115-254 § 355) and the US government and its agencies (PL 115-254 § 364).

Government drone operators are subject to the same operating requirements as private and commercial operators. While a law enforcement agency operating a drone may choose to have an individual earn an FAA drone pilot certificate like a commercial operotr, an agency may also obtain an FAA certificate of authorization to function as a “public aircraft operator,” allowing it to self-certify its drone pilots and drones.

Government entities have also expanded their authority with respect to law enforcement and security. For example, the 2018 FAA Act authorizes the Department of Homeland Security to detect, identify, monitor, track, and disrupt control of drones without prior consent, as well as seize, confiscate, or exercise control over drones, and use reasonable force, if necessary, to disable, damage, or destroy drones.

Commercial Use

Commercial drone use encompasses any activity that does not fall under recreational or government use, such as a company using a drone to monitor pipelines or storage tanks. In Florida, companies use drones for data collection, surveillance, surveying, real estate, construction, design, utilities, agriculture, and film.

The FAA has passed legislation allowing for commercial drone operation, with a primary focus on remote pilot certification. Applicants for certification must meet requirements such as minimum age, reading, speaking, and writing English, physical and mental condition, passing an aeronautical knowledge test, and completing a training course. Operational limitations also apply, including restrictions on weight, time of operation, visual sight requirements, what the drone can carry, airspace limitations, and more. Drone operators generally do not need a waiver to fly drones according to FAA requirements for commercial drones, but a Certificate of Waiver is required when deviating from FAA rules.

Privacy and Product Safety

Drones present concerns regarding privacy and product safety at both the state and federal level, regardless of their intended use. Privacy issues arise due to the capability of drones for surveillance.

The 2018 FAA Act attempted to address these concerns by mandating that drone operators respect personal privacy in accordance with federal and state law. At the state level, Florida has created a civil action for operators who use camera-equipped drones to capture audio or video of property or persons on property without consent.

For product safety issues, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) regulates most consumer products sold in the US but lacks jurisdiction over drones due to a carve-out for aircraft. The absence of federal product safety standards for drone equipment means that the CPSC has no authority to recall or oversee recalls of drones. Florida does not specifically regulate drone safety as a consumer product.

Florida Drone Laws

In Florida, two primary laws govern the use of drones:

  • The Unmanned Aircraft Systems Act (§ 330.41, Fla. Stat.)
  • Freedom from Unwanted Surveillance Act (§ 934.50, Fla. Stat.)

Unmanned Aircraft Systems Act

In Florida, drones and their operation are regulated by the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Act (the Florida Act), which came into effect on July 31, 2017 (§ 330.41(1), Fla. Stat.). According to the Florida Act, a UAS is defined as a drone and its associated components, including communication links and the components used to control the drone for safe and efficient operation (§ 330.41(2)(b), Fla. Stat.). A drone, in turn, is a powered, aerial vehicle that does not carry a human operator, uses aerodynamic forces for lift, can fly autonomously or be piloted remotely, can be expendable or recoverable, and can carry a lethal or nonlethal payload (§ 330.41(2)(b), Fla. Stat.).

The Florida Act prohibits the use of drones with an attached weapon, firearm, explosive, destructive device, or ammunition (§ 330.411, Fla. Stat.). Furthermore, it complements the federal regime of drone regulation by delegating authority to the state for anything that has not been addressed by federal law (§ 330.41(3)(a), (4)(d), Fla. Stat.). For example, a person or government entity seeking to restrict drones from operating near certain infrastructure or facilities must apply to the FAA for that authority under § 2209 of the 2016 FAA Act (§ 330.41(3)(d), Fla. Stat.).

The Florida Act also provides special protection to what it calls a “critical infrastructure facility,” defined as certain facilities such as an electrical power generation or transmission facility, substation, switching station, or electrical control center, or a chemical or rubber manufacturing or storage facility, among others (§ 330.41(2)(a)(1) to (10), Fla. Stat.). A critical infrastructure facility must be completely enclosed by a fence or other physical barrier that is designed to exclude intruders or clearly marked with signs that forbid entry, posted in a manner that intruders are likely to see them (§ 330.41(2)(a), Fla. Stat.).

Under the Florida Act, it is illegal to knowingly or willfully operate a drone over a critical infrastructure facility or allow a drone to make contact with it, or to come within a certain distance of it that can interfere with its operations or cause a disturbance (§ 330.41(4)(a)(1) to (3), Fla. Stat.). Violations of the act are considered misdemeanors, but the prohibition does not apply to drones operated in transit for commercial purposes in compliance with FAA regulations, authorizations, or exemptions (§ 330.41(4)(d), Fla. Stat.). The prohibitions of the Florida Act do not apply to certain entities such as federal, state, or other governmental entities or law enforcement agencies that comply with Florida’s Freedom from Unwanted Surveillance Act, or an owner, operator, or occupant of the critical infrastructure facility, or a person who has prior written consent from them (§ 330.41(4)(c)1 to 3, Fla. Stat.).

Florida Act Penalties for Violating Critical Infrastructure Facility Prohibitions

If a drone operator violates the Florida Act by allowing a drone to fly over, contact, or interfere with a critical infrastructure facility, they may face penalties in addition to those under the FAA framework. A first offense is considered a second-degree misdemeanor, which can result in up to 60 days in prison and a maximum fine of $500. Any subsequent offense is a first-degree misdemeanor, with penalties of up to one year in prison and a maximum fine of $1,000. (§ 330.41(4)(b), Fla. Stat.)

Limitation on Municipal Powers Under Florida Act

The Florida Act not only complements federal drone laws, but it also limits the power of political subdivisions to enact or enforce their own ordinances or resolutions related to drones and their operations. Municipalities are prohibited from regulating aspects of drone activity such as design, manufacture, testing, maintenance, licensing, registration, certification, airspace, altitude, flight path, equipment or technology requirements, purpose of operation, and pilot, operator, or observer qualifications, training, and certification. (§ 330.41(3)(b), Fla. Stat.)

Local Government Authority Under Florida Act

Under the Florida Act, local governments retain authority to enact and enforce ordinances relating to illegal acts such as nuisance, harassment, and property damage arising from the use of drones. The Act does not limit such authority unless the laws or ordinances specifically pertain to drones for those illegal acts. The state attorney general has determined that a municipal ordinance prohibiting private individuals from using drones for surveillance that violates privacy rights of residents is not preempted by section 934.50. Examples of such local ordinances can be found in DeFuniak Springs. (§ 330.41(3)(c), Fla. Stat.)

Freedom from Unwanted Surveillance Act

The Freedom from Unwanted Surveillance Act (FUSA), which preceded the Florida Act, also governs drone activity in various areas, including government, law enforcement, and commercial use. Except for some exceptions, the FUSA prohibits the use of a drone equipped with an imaging device to capture an image of privately owned real property or of the owner, tenant, occupant, invitee, or licensee of the property.

The FUSA, which primarily pertains to law enforcement, bars the use of drones by law enforcement agencies to gather evidence or other information. Moreover, it prohibits a person, state agency, or political subdivision from recording an image of privately owned real property or the individuals mentioned earlier with the aim of conducting surveillance on them, without written consent, in violation of the person’s reasonable expectation of privacy.

The FUSA presumes that a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy on their privately owned real property, regardless of whether they are observable from the air with the use of a drone or not. However, there are several exceptions where drone use is allowed in various commercial, governmental, and law enforcement applications. These include counterterrorism measures by the US Secretary of Homeland Security, search warrants obtained by law enforcement agencies, and the need to prevent imminent danger to life or serious property damage. A

erial images may also be captured by law enforcement agencies to aid the search for missing persons, for traffic management, and to facilitate the collection of evidence at a crime or traffic crash scene. Additionally, certified fire department personnel, property appraisers, utility providers, and communications service providers are allowed to use drones for their respective purposes. The capturing of images for safe drone operation or navigation, as well as the management of invasive exotic plants or animals on public lands and the suppression and mitigation of wildfire threats, are also permitted. (§ 934.50(4)(a) to (p), Fla. Stat.)

In 2022, government agencies, including state, county, and municipal entities, are restricted to purchasing or acquiring drones from a list of approved manufacturers as determined by the Department of Management Services (§ 934.50(7)(b)(c), Fla. Stat.). If an agency is found to be using non-approved drones after July 1, 2022, they must submit a comprehensive plan to discontinue their use to the Department (§ 934.50(7)(d), Fla. Stat.). As of January 1, 2023, all government agencies must cease using drones that are not manufactured by an approved manufacturer (§ 934.50(7)(e), Fla. Stat.).

FUSA Civil and Criminal Penalties

If FUSA is violated, an affected party can seek redress by filing a civil lawsuit (§ 934.50(5)(a), Fla. Stat.). A person whose reasonable expectation of privacy has been violated may initiate a civil action to claim:

  • Monetary damages.
  • A court order to stop future violations. The party that wins the lawsuit can recover reasonable legal fees. In some cases, a party may also seek punitive damages.

Relevant Cases

Relevant Statutes

Relevant Regulations

Cities, regions, and counties can supplement federal and state drone laws with their own regulations. In Florida, several cities have enacted drone laws that complement the state statutes, such as:

  • Miami
  • Orlando
  • Bonita Springs
  • DeFuniak Springs
  • Pinellas County
  • Canaveral Port Authority
  • University of Tampa

Miami

The City of Miami has enacted an ordinance, Code of Ordinances § 37-12, to regulate drone usage (Ord. No. 13581, § 2, 12-10-15). The law complements both the FAA regulatory framework and state requirements. The ordinance prohibits drones from operating over or within a half-mile radius of certain sporting or special event venues and public parks during large events. Drones may not weigh more than five pounds or be equipped with detachable cargo, reusable payload, or weapon-carrying devices unless modifications are registered with the city through an FAA application. Law enforcement and fire rescue operations are exempt from these restrictions. Drone operators must file an application with the city and provide a statement indemnifying the city and obtain insurance covering potential public liability and property damage.

Violators of the ordinance may face criminal and civil penalties, including a fine of up to $500 and imprisonment of not more than 60 days, and the city may impound the drone during enforcement proceedings. (§ 37-12(c)-(g)).

Orlando

Orlando has no specific drone laws and instead relies on the state statutes, recognizing that its previous ordinance was overruled by § 330.41, Fla. Stat. The city’s definition of “aircraft” specifically excludes drones, as defined in section 934.50, Florida Statutes, and other safety equipment such as parachutes.

Bonita Springs

The city of Bonita Springs restricts drone use in its parks through various regulations. To use a drone to capture an event, the operator must obtain a special event permit. Hobby drone operators may only fly drones in one specific park unless they have a concessionaire agreement. Additionally, drone operation may only occur when the fields are unoccupied and at a distance of at least 25 feet from people, power lines, buildings, or light fixtures. To engage in commercial use or delivery services by drone on any city lands, the parks and recreation director must approve a written concessionaire agreement.

Violating these regulations may result in punishment as a second-degree misdemeanor under state law. The city may also seek other relief, including restitution or an injunction. Individuals convicted of a violation must pay fines and the city’s expenses incurred by prosecuting the cases.

DeFuniak Springs

The city allows law enforcement to operate drones in response to emergencies or with a warrant based on criminal activity (Ord. No. 866, § 22-52(d)(2)). Recreational drone operators may fly drones on their property below 500 feet (Ord. No. 866, § 22-52(d)(1)).

Drone operation in the city is subject to several restrictions, including obtaining express permission from property owners to operate drones on private property and obtaining special event permits approved by the city council to operate drones on public property (Ord. No. 866, § 22-52(a) to (c)). Commercial drone operators must comply with both private and public property drone operational requirements and must register with the Office of City Marshall, provide information on the drones, and notify officials at least four hours before use (Ord. No. 866, § 22-52(b) to (c)).

The city prohibits careless or reckless drone operation that poses a threat of harm to persons or property, capturing or transmitting any audio or visual recordings without the express permission of a person or property owner, and intentionally harassing or causing public nuisance (Ord. No. 866, § 22-52(e)(1) to (3)). Violations may be punishable as a second-degree misdemeanor under state law (Ord. No. 866, § 22-53) (see Florida Act Civil and Criminal Penalties).

Pinellas County

In Pinellas County, drone operation is restricted from taking off or landing in or on any county-owned or managed property, except for public-safety purposes or when the operator has obtained written permission (Ord. No. 16-40, §§ 90-7(q) and 90-12).

Canaveral Port Authority

Unauthorized drone operation on Canaveral Port Authority (CPA) property is prohibited, including control or assistance in operation, and violators may be subject to trespass. The term “unmanned systems” encompasses aircraft and water drones and their components, as well as communication links. CPA authorization is required for any operation and must be requested from the Public Safety and Security Department at least 48 hours in advance. (Rule 577: Unmanned Systems (Drones), Section 500 Security, Safety, and Environmental, Tariff No. 16.)

University of Tampa

No commercial or recreational drone operations are allowed over property owned by the University of Tampa, including parking lots, without official authorization from the University. This policy is in accordance with restrictions outlined in Tampa City Ordinance Section 16-36 Aircraft and Parachuting.

 

If you have any legal needs related to the use of drones in Florida, please contact us, and we are happy to discuss.

Legal Disclaimer

The information provided in this article is for general informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal or tax advice. The content presented is not intended to be a substitute for professional legal, tax, or financial advice, nor should it be relied upon as such. Readers are encouraged to consult with their own attorney, CPA, and tax advisors to obtain specific guidance and advice tailored to their individual circumstances. No responsibility is assumed for any inaccuracies or errors in the information contained herein, and John Montague and Montague Law expressly disclaim any liability for any actions taken or not taken based on the information provided in this article.

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